AN HISTORICAL SKETCH 1734 – 1992
by BROTHER STEPHEN DRURY,
Right Worshipful Master
The Petition for the formation of a Lodge at Kilmarnock is dated 14th November 1734. It is signed by Lord Kilmarnock, amongst others, and shows that all subscribers were “Masons belonging to the said Worship full and most ancient Lodge of Kilwinning”. The Lodge is therefore a true Daughter of Kilwinning, no members of any other Lodge having had a part in the erection. The reasons for praying that a Lodge be erected are clearly stated.
“That the Brethren of Mother Kilwinning in and about the town of Kilmarnock are at a great loss, by our distance from the seat of the said Lodge, in not getting cultivate in due manner the ends and purposes of Masonrie, nor keeping useful correspondence in a regular Lodge”.
This request was granted and the original Charter of the Lodge issued under the ordinances of the Schaw Statutes. The origins of Freemasonry in the town of Kilmarnock are unknown, but it should be noted that early minute books are embossed ‘Instituted 1700″ indicating the existence of the Lodge prior to 1734.
Reflecting on the beginnings of the Lodge we can be considered fortunate on the choice of the first Right Worshipful Master and his standing in Scottish history, he being William Boyd 4th Earl of Kilmarnock. He was Master of the Lodge during 1734-1741 and in 1744, Grand Master Mason 174243 and Master of Mother Kilwinning in 1742 when it is recorded that “The Right Honourable William Earl of Kilmarnock was installed, proclaimed and acknowledged Right Worshipfull Master for the year ensuing; and after having taken the chair and opening the Lodge, he admitted the Right Honourable Alexander, Earl of Eglintoune, an apprentice, and James Harper and Alexander Campbell were made fellows of craft, and his Lordship of Eglintoune paid into the box five guineas for the poor, besides the expenses of the day.” The Earl of Eglintoune and his descendants were to feature prominently in Grand Lodge history, the 10th, 16th and 17th Earls becoming Grand Master Masons. Lord Kilmarnock did however pay the ultimate price for his support of Charles Edward Stuart and was executed at Tower Hill in 1746 following his capture at Culloden. From this somewhat eventful start the Lodge progressed towards the late 1700’s in a stable manner. Lodge St John Kilwinning Kilmarnock took an early opportunity to support the newly formed Grand Lodge of Scotland. In 1738 Grand Lodge issued under its authority a Charter to the Lodge.
The earliest existing minute pertaining to a sister Lodge in the town appears in 1 780 when Robert Arbuckle, Surgeon, a member of St Andrews Lodge was admitted a member and in 1782 when Lt. Hobart of the 21st Regiment of Foot. an apprentice of St Marnocks Lodge did likewise.
As the Lodge reached the end of the eighteenth century it was fortunate to he involved with one of the great literary figures of Scotland, Brother Robert Burns. The Bard was to become associated with the Lodge at a difficult period in his life. He was residing at Mossgeil near Mauchline and was a frequent visitor to Kilmarnock. He was also at this time on the verge of publishing the first edition of his poems and this was to be done with the assistance of a member of the Lodge, the printer John Wilson. Brother Wilson who was to become Master of the Lodge during 1796-1797 and later to become instrumental in the production of the Ayrshire newspaper, the Ayr Advertiser.
Burns’ social character brought him into contact with many members of the Lodge but probably the most memorable friendship was of Tam Samson, local seedsman. Brother Samson was Treasurer of the Lodge in 1779, and is celebrated in Burns’ Elegy:
the Lodge has lost an unco devil, Tam Samsons Deid”.
John Begbie, a local vintner and friend of Burns, was initiated into the Lodge on 22nd December 1786 and featured in the poem ‘The Ordination’:
Then aff to begbies in a raw, An drink divine libations.
Begbies Inn was later to become the Angel Inn, a regular meeting place of the Lodge during the late 1800’s.
Robert Burns was made an honorary member of the Lodge on 26th October 1786. The minute is of particular interest as it refers to Burns as a poet and not as a farmer. He would have considered this a great privilege and the Lodge has since been honoured by his Masonic Song, “The Sons of Ailed Killie”, dedicated to the Lodge and his friend William Parker of Assloss Right Worshipful Master at that time. The members of the Lodge subscribed and supported his First Edition and so perhaps in some way assisted in giving to the world his immortal work. The Lodge has in its possession a gavel reputedly presented by Burns.
During this period the Lodge met in Croft Street in what is now the Wheatsheaf Hotel and an early map of the town of 1818 shows a separate Lodge building adjacent to those premises. The Lodge proceeded into the 1800’s with great enthusiasm and in 1818 supported the formation of a new Lodge in the town, Lodge St James Nethertonholm, No.345, It appears from the minutes that this Lodge was to be short lived, and in 1821 reference suggests that its downfall was caused by some form of schismatic Freemasonry. The support that St Johns’ gave to extending Freemasonry within the area continued and in 1830 supported the formation of the now extinct Lodge Glencairn Kilmaurs in the adjacent village of Kilmaurs.
The minutes of the 1800’s make interesting reading and paint a picture of a rather elegant period in the Lodges history. During the iii Id 1 1800’s the meeting places can be determined as the George Hotel then moving on to the Sun Inn. Sadly it is obvious that the Lodge fortunes were to take a turn for the worse and the Lodge was in some form of dormancy during the years 1838 to 1856, although with no existing minutes it is difficult to ascertain the exact state of affairs.
The Lodge emerged from this condition and regained its strength. In 1860 the Kilmarnock historian, poet and topographer, Archibald McKay was initiated and also in that same year installed as Poet Laureate of the Lodge. In 1861 he examined the papers in possession of the Lodge pertaining to the dormant Old St Marnock Lodge, No.136, which was to re-emerge in 1867 as Lodge St Marnock, No.109, and indeed still thrives today.
In 1863 a signet ring was presented by the Lodge to James Brown Past Master as a token of respect. It was returned to the Lodge from the Trustees of Brother Brown’s estate on the condition it be worn in perpetuity by the Masters, a tradition carried on to this day.
During this period a leading figure appears in the person of John Steven Past Master who was to become Depute Provincial Grand Master. His passing away in 1871 was a great loss to Freemasonry.
As the end of the nineteenth century approached the four Lodges within the town were to realise the benefits of shared premises and in 1898 purchased 39 John Finnie Street at a cost of œ2,050. The Consecration took place on 26th October 1899 with the ceremony conducted by the Right Worshipful Provincial Grand Master Brother Mathew Arthur. The trend in new premises within the Province was prolific and the Lodge well represented on all these occasions.
The historical background of the Lodge was researched by James Dunlop Past Master in 1903 when he complied the first known history of the Lodge. During his research he was to discover a holograph letter from Sir Walter Scott dated 14th November 1829 in which he refers to a portrait of Robert Burns although the actual reason for the letter and the portrait referred to have never been established. Brother Dunlop’s history is still in print and a copy given to every new member.
On 5th January 1900 a special meeting was held at 12.05 a.m. to confer the Master Mason Degree upon a Brother going abroad the same morning. Grand Lodge stated that this was the earliest time they would allow the degree to be conferred. The attendance was surprisingly good.
The dark years of World War One were soon to approach and the Lodge dispatched gifts to Brethren in the Forces, and even when a Brother’s diploma was lost on board the ‘Chantala’, torpedoed in the Mediterranean, he received a replacement from the Lodge. In 1920 the Lodge held a Memorial Service for fallen Brethren, the Rev. Brother W. S. Reid, Chaplain of Lodge Burns St Mary. No.505, presided. The Lodge emerged from the war years to encounter a period of optimism. candidates greatly increased. with an Entered Apprentice Degree held on 20th September 1919 admitting 19 candidates !.
The year 1924 brought about the purchase of a site for the proposed new Masonic premises which to this day still accommodates the four Kilmarnock Lodges in London Road. The Consecration did not take place until three years later on 10th December 1927 and was carried out by the Right Worshipful Provincial Grand Master Brother James Arthur, the Consecration stone contained artifacts from the four Lodges. The first regular meeting held by the Lodge in the new Temple was a Fellow Craft Degree which took place on 20th December 1927.
The Lodge celebrated 200 years of Freemasonry with a special Bicentenary Celebration on 17th November 1934. At this special event Brother Samuel Templeton, Right Worshipful Master, presided and Grand Lodge were well represented and headed by the Most Worshipful Grand Master Mason, Brother The Right Hon. The Lord Saltoun, M.C., j.p. A Divine Service was also held in the Henderson Church on the following day.
The minute book from the period 1939-1948 was to document yet another World War. On 13th September 1939 a Brother Cumming was welcomed into the Lodge. He was a survivor from the liner ‘Athenia’ which was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in the North Atlantic the day war was declared on 3rd September 1939.
Out of the gloom of the war years men could still derive pleasure from Freemasonry and the Brethren of the Lodge were to join in the celebration of the formation of a new Lodge in the nearby village of Kilmaurs with the name Lodge St Maurs Kilmaurs, No.1398. Lodge St John is still fortunate today in having amongst its ranks a Founder Member of No.1398, Brother Frank Knapp, and indeed the Lodge St John Kilwinning, No.22, was to provide one of this new Lodge’s early Masters in the person of Brother David Mitchell.
During the year 1936-37 the Chair of the Lodge was occupied by Brother Daniel Cairns. Brother Cairns was to rise to great heights in the Civic affairs of the town, a member of the Town Council for 41 years, he became Provost on two occasions, a Magistrate and a Police Judge, whilst his contribution to Lodge St John was immense. Sadly he passed away in 1947 at the age of 87. Tribute as a public figure was made to his memory by the then Secretary of State for Scotland. The Lodge was certainly fortunate in having such a dedicated member, he was devoted to the Lodge and carried its name worldwide.
Many Brethren were to influence the direction of the Lodge following the War years, too numerous to mention in this short account of the Lodge. However, two are worthy of a special mention for their contribution to Masonry on a wider sense, firstly Brother Richard Scott, Past Master, who had been a Provincial and Grand Lodge Office-Bearer, and secondly Brother Jame McCrone, Past Master, who had been Provincial Treasurer and received Grand Rank as Honorary Grand Marshal.
Through the efforts and skills of the many Brethren who have laboured down the centuries the Lodge was enabled on 10th November 1982 to celebrate 250 years of existence when approximately 500 Brethren enjoyed that auspicious event.
The Right Worshipful Master, Brother A. Wilson, welcomed a large deputation from Grand Lodge headed by the Most Worshipful Grand Master Mason Brother Marcus Humphrey of Dinnet, O.St.J., M.A., F.R.I.C.S. for the Re-dedication Ceremony followed by a Dinner held in the Grand Hall.
Prior to this event Kilmarnock Town Council were to honour the Lodge and its contribution to the community with a Civic Reception.
Freemasonry in Ayrshire continued to flourish and in 1985 a new Lodge was consecrated in the neighbouring village of Dundonald, called Lodge Burns Dundonald 1759, and Lodge St John was to lend its full support.
Lodge St John stands today on the brink of another century and will no doubt face many challenges, as the Brethren of the past also have done. The Lodge has produced many Brethren who have left no memorial except that of a Lodge with a glorious past and a hope for Brethren of the same calibre to safeguard the future.
Within this dear mansion, may wayward contention Or withered envy ne’er enter; May secrecy round be the mystical bound, And brotherly love be the centre.
Robert Burns, The Sons of Old Killie. 1786